FORMER prime minister Bob Hawke has paid tribute to his late ex-wife Hazel, who died on Thursday after a long battle with dementia.

He said in a statement Mrs Hawke was a source of strength during his long and challenging career in the union movement and politics.

He said he remembered Mrs Hawke with "deep affection and gratitude".

"She was more than a wife and mother, being father as well, during my frequent absences as I pursued an industrial then political career," Mr Hawke said.

"I think there is general agreement that Hazel did an outstanding job as Australia's First Lady from 1983 to 1991.

She was a constant support, particularly through some very difficult times.

"Our three children, Susan, Stephen and Rosslyn, adored their mother as did our six grandchildren, and my thoughts are very much with them at this time."

The couple was married for 39 years, including nine in The Lodge, before separating in 1995.

The current Prime Minister Julia Gillard led the chorus of people to pay tribute to Hazel, who was 83.

Ms Gillard told reporters on the Central Coast Australians had admired Mrs Hawke's "dignity and courage" during her battle with illness.

"I know Australians will be saddened. So on behalf of the nation I offer out most sincere condolences to the Hawke family as they absorb this news and as they grief the loss of the much-loved Hazel Hawke," Ms Gillard said.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott described Mrs Hawke as a "great lady who will be much missed".

"I can remember years ago, when I was a new member of parliament, Margie (Abbott) read Hazel's story and she was tremendously impressed," Mr Abbott said during an interview on Melbourne radio.

"I think Hazel Hawke was a gutsy woman. A lot of people identified with her and she was heroic in her fight with alzheimer's and the way she was so gutsy in coming forward and being very public about her own struggles with that affliction."

The word "gutsy" was also used by Governor-General Quentin Bryce to describe Mrs Hawke.

Ms Bryce was effusive in her praise for Mrs Hawke, who she said was "one of the most admired Australians in public life".

"Hazel was much loved by us all. She was gutsy, compassionate, and had a fierce intelligence and a wonderful sense of humour," Ms Bryce said.

"Hazel contributed to our community, our country across so many fields - social reform, our cultural life, children's television and family enrichment.

"My most special memory of her is of the time at the Opera House when she played the piano exquisitely. I can still see her joyousness and delight playing in her beautiful hot pink dress."

Alzheimer's Australia president Ita Buttrose said Australians would feel a "sense of personal loss" with Mrs Hawke's death.

She highlighted Mrs Hawke's important role in raising awareness about alzheimer's, saying it had taken "remarkable courage" to go public with her illness.

"She was the first and only well-known Australian to speak publicly about her life with alzheimer's disease," Ms Buttrose said.

"Her courage to speak openly about her dementia journey has left a lasting legacy in raising the profile of alzheimer's disease and reducing the strong sense of isolation that thousands of Australians with dementia experience."

It was 10 years ago Alzheimer's Australia created the Hazel Hawke Alzheimer's Research and Care Fund to assist with research and helping fellow sufferers.

She spoke openly at the time about her own experience.

"I hope that, by speaking out about this very private issue, I can help to promote openness, awareness and support for all people living with dementia. No illness should carry a negative label. None of us is immune," Mrs Hawke said in 2003.

"Although I would obviously prefer not to have alzheimer's, I continue to live a happy and healthy life, with the love and support of family and friends. I hope that, as a community, we can work towards this as a reality for all those similarly affected."

In a statement issued on Thursday night Mrs Hawke's family asked for privacy, indicating she would be farewelled at a private funeral for family and close friends.

A memorial celebration of her life will be held later at a time and place to be advised.

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